The mysteries of pickup combinations!

Brian May guitars virtually always feature the same unique pickup switching system Brian uses on the Old Lady herself. For some reason, Burns don’t bother to give you a manual if you buy one of their otherwise excellent guitars, so here is the BrianMayCentral guide to the mysteries of the Brian May pickup switching system!

Rather than the standard 5-way or 3-way toggle switches on Fender and Gibson guitars, Brian May guitars feature 6 little individual switches. For each pickup there is an on-off switch and a phase reversal switch, which gives many more interesting possibilities in combining pickups. Brian May guitars are also wired in series rather than parallel, which also gives different tonal possibilities. So what do all those switches actually do?

pickup switches

On-off switches

Let’s start by just looking at the on-off switches – we’ll worry about the phase switches later. Each pickup has its own switch, so it can be turned on or off independently of the others. This means that the guitar has a true ‘standby’ mode where all of the pickups are off. The three single coil pickups each produce slightly different tones due to their positioning. The bridge pickup is brightest and most trebley, the neck pickup is much warmer and more mellow and the middle pickup is between the two, both physically and tonally. Any combination of 1, 2 or all 3 pickups can be selected. Brian’s favourite tone is the bridge and middle pickups both selected and in phase (more of that in a moment). Switching on all three pickups is also very interesting and gives a huge tone. Because the pickups are wired in series, selecting more than one pickup increases the output of the guitar and can therefore give you more gain.

Phase Switches

Now, let’s have a look at those phase switches. These only apply if you have 2 or more pickups selected as one pickup alone can’t be out of phase with itself. Phase is also relative, so it is the difference that matters. If that sounds too obscure, let me give you an example. Switch on both the bridge and middle pickups and put both of the phase switches in the down position (i.e. towards the floor). The sound will be Brian’s favourite rhythm tone. Now flick the phase switch on the middle pickup to the up position. The sound will now be much thinner and more trebley as the lower frequencies cancel – the pickups are out of phase. Now flick the phase switch on the bridge pickup to the up position. The tone will be back to the full rhythm tone we had originally – i.e. it doesn’t matter if you have the switches up or down, it’s the difference in phase which matters. Now that we’ve got that cleared up, lets look at some of the possible combinations. Generally speaking, putting two pickups in phase will produce a full, rich tone and selecting two pickups out of phase will produce a piercing trebley tone. You can also get some really interesting combinations by putting all three pickups on but selecting one to be out of phase with the other two. There are a total of 13 possible combinations (there are actually 21 possibilities, but some are the same as each other because of the phase differences explained above). Let’s look in detail at some of the tones to try…

Bridge and Middle pickups in phase
This is Brian’s favourite pickup combination, which he uses 85% of the time. For chords and rhythm work this combination can give that lovely full ringing tone, but still maintains good separation between notes so it doesn’t turn muddy. A good example of this tone are the riffs on Hammer to Fall and Tie Your Mother Down. This setting is also good for lead work and was used by Brian for the opening solo in Brighton Rock.

Neck and Middle pickups in phase
This is a very rich tone, which gives has an amazing violin-like quality if you back off the gain a little. Brian used this tone for the solo work on You Take My Breath Away and Leavin’ Home Ain’t Easy. For smooth solo sounds like this, Brian often uses his fingers to pick the strings rather than a sixpence and he gently strokes the strings to coax out those smooth rich sounds.

Neck and bridge pickups in phase
A cutting but rather sweet sound.

Neck and Bridge pickups out of phase
A strong bright lead tone. Brian used this on the solo work for Liar and for the riffs on Stone Cold Crazy.

Neck and Middle pickups out of phase
This is a real ‘screaming’ lead tone, which is piercing at high volumes. Brian used this tone extensively on songs where he wanted a really emotional cutting solo, such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Somebody to Love and The March of the Black Queen.

All 3 pickups selected with neck out of phase
This uses all three pickups and sounds a little bit like a Rickenbacker tone, or a harder version of Brian’s favourite sound (mid + bridge in phase). Funky rhythms at low levels, hard and hollow at high levels.

All 3 pickups selected with bridge out of phase
A very rich sound at very high levels (Violin type tone)

All 3 pickups selected with middle out of phase
Brian calls this “Bread and butter” after that rhythm sound. Makes a strange clang on the low strings. Piercing at high levels.

I haven’t covered all possible pickup combinations here, so try a few out for yourself and see what interesting sounds you can make.

Modifications to the ‘standard’ Brian May pickup wiring

Scott Humphrey has been investigating simple mods for the Brian May guitar wiring, to access an even wider range of tones. The article on his website explains how to get both series and parallel wiring with some very simple modifications.